We’ve seen quarterbacks make 300-yard games look routine; we’ve seen defenders completely neutralize offensive superstars; and we’ve seen coaches turn their teams completely around, for better and for worse.
Amazing that we can say this at the start of every season, yet remain surprised as if we’ve never seen it before.
I battled with myself a lot while compiling this list of too-early predictions. Paragraphs were deleted, my laptop was closed violently, and Facebook and Twitter came through in the clutch with the 20-minute distraction.
But after I finally deciphered the messages in my crystal ball and tea leaves, I settled on my list of the most impressive candidates for the annual awards handed out in the NFL.
It’s first-and-10 right now and I'm in hostile territory. Hopefully no one is flagged for a false start. Let’s see what the defense shows me before the snap.
QB Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts
Listen. I didn’t think Peyton Manning deserved the MVP award in 2008. He received too much credit for the Colts’ nine-game winning streak when they had the benefit of playing through mediocre competition.
This is where Colts’ fans remind me their team beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers on that run. Don’t care.
As far as the first four weeks of this season are concerned, no quarterback is playing better. And yes, I'm aware of Drew Brees' existence.
Manning’s 1,336 yards and nine touchdowns have him off to the best start of his illustrious career. If that doesn't say it all, then you're simply not listening.
For your consideration: QB Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers—It really is unfortunate that a pair of losses damages a man’s credibility. But should Rivers really be faulted for his defense’s inability to secure the victory when he's brought 1,245 yards and six touchdowns to the field?
Also noteworthy: LaDainian Tomlinson, who? Just saying.
Offensive Player of the Year
QB Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
"Baltimore" and "prolific offense" used to be the grandest of contradictions. The two do not go together.
But in his second season, Joe Flacco is testing history with the Ravens, churning out 300-yard performances, and challenging Baltimore's decade-long identity.
With 1,103 yards and eight scores, Flacco is hiding the biggest elephant in the room: Baltimore’s defense is running on reputation this season. The Browns don't count.
For your consideration: QB Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints—I swear I’m not going with the “shock” angle by waiting until now to nominate Brees. I promise you.
His production in the first two games was mind-boggling, but two weeks don’t make a season. When his high-octane offense is neutralized, the only thing stopping his Saints from being the 8-8 team of 2008 is a scoring defense.
Defensive Player of the Year
S Darren Sharper, New Orleans Saints
Too generous? Any player who's returning interceptions for more than 95 yards in his 13th NFL season should be acknowledged accordingly.
Darren Sharper leads the league with five picks, proving his speed is still perfectly synchronized with an elite sense of awareness. Most defensive backs watch that skill fade in the twilight of their careers, but Sharper remains as omnipresent as ever.
His 33 years really can't be disregarded in all of this.
Most elite defenders are usually reduced to reserve roles at this stage of their career, whereas Sharper's arrival in New Orleans made him the centerpiece of the Saints' new defensive tradition under Gregg Williams.
For your consideration: CB Darrelle Revis, New York Jets—In his third season, Revis turned shutting down top receivers into an art. The one thing that keeps Revis a notch below Sharper is the empty touchdown column. Locking down receivers is all fine and dandy, but he needs to create turnovers and convert them to points every now and again, too.
Comeback Player of the Year
QB Tom Brady, New England Patriots
This award is his to lose.
For your consideration: LB David Harris, New York Jets—In 2007, Harris replaced the injured Jonathan Vilma and recorded 52 solo tackles in his first three starts. He went on to lead the team with 127 tackles with production to rival that of 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
And then injuries happened in 2008. Harris was sidelined for most of the season and was a shadow of the potential All-Pro he appeared to be as a rookie.
With Rex Ryan in town, and working with linebacker Bart Scott to form “Assault & Battery,” the Jets’ Punisher has forced a fumble, picked off a pass, recorded 33 tackles, and notched two sacks.
Is This a Little Silly? QB Brett Favre, Minnesota Vikings—Is it possible for someone to comeback after being voted to a Pro Bowl?
Favre was written off after last season’s stint with New York. I helped seal the envelope. His two touchdown, nine interception disaster to close out 2008 with the Jets was supposed to spell the end.
Now with the Vikings, Favre has a 104.6 passer rating, eight touchdown passes, and only one interception. Adrian Peterson doesn't have to do it all alone anymore.
Oh, and two thrilling victories to boot. Welcome back, again.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
QB Mark Sanchez, New York Jets
So the Saints game was really ugly. The fifth-overall draft pick laid the first egg of his young career, and you’d be naïve to assume it’s the last. But that doesn’t change the veteran-like presence Sanchez had in his first three outings.
Jets coach Rex Ryan wasn’t forcing his prize quarterback onto the field when he named Sanchez the starter. He said Sanchez was the best man for the job, and it's hard to argue after watching him play.
For your consideration: WR/KR Percy Harvin, Minnesota Vikings—He’s every bit the playmaker he was expected to be coming out of college. His speed makes him a threat from anywhere on the field, validating why the Vikings drafted him out of Florida.
Harvin will be even more dangerous once he stops running on pure instinct and actually understands what a defense is trying to do neutralize him.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
LB Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers
I’ll be honest with you: I’m making this call off the strength of one play. Crazy, huh?
I was sold when Clay Matthews ripped the football from the clutches of the NFL’s best running back, Adrian Peterson, and returned it for a touchdown on Monday Night Football.
There was no doubt in my mind that he’s a good player, but that’s the kind of play that prefaces a highlight reel when you’re inducted into the Hall of Fame. Too soon?
For your consideration: LB Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins—Call me a fan. I like Orakpo's style...a lot. He's turned his raw power into 13 tackles and two sacks, and is showing flashes of being an elite pass-rush specialist once the game turns on for him.
Coach of the Year
Eric Mangini, Cleveland Browns
Rex Ryan, New York Jets
All trash talk and bravado aside, Rex Ryan knows how to make a football team work. He isn't only coaching a talented team, but he's working towards changing the culture for an entire fanbase. How's that for leadership?
He might be rough around the edges, but isn't it about time the NFL saw a coach who actually speaks from his soul?
Regardless of those intangibles, Ryan identifies what his team needs to improve, and he gets it done. Once it became clear that his offense would struggle without a premier receiver, he made sure the Jets pulled the trigger on a trade for Braylon Edwards.
The attack-style approach he promised in New York turned his team into a 3-1 contender when, before the season, most analysts presumed it to be a bottom-dweller.
For your consideration: Brad Childress, Minnesota Vikings—Idiot savant? Sorry. That was harsh.
Childress took a lot of heat in the offseason for delivering pies to Brett Favre's door every morning last summer. People questioned why he was so desperate to entice a quarterback ready to turn 40, with a surgically repaired arm, back to the field.
After four weeks, his Vikings are undefeated and Childress gets to smile the whole way through. His defense is lights out with Jared Allen performing like a monster (sorry if you Vikes fans feel he was snubbed for Sharper).
The Vikings' last second victory against the San Francisco 49ers was the kind of thing Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels couldn't do. Childress' desperation for the gunslinger sure looks different from this side of September.